Sun, Sea, Scorpions And Smashed Sumps


European 24hr Championship

Finale Ligure, Italy

There can be few better places to start a race than right on the seafront in an historic town on the Italian Riviera. We had gathered in the main square, from which we could see the sea through the rather magnificent Arch Of Margaret Of Spain, the sun blazing down on us as we were announced and called forward one by one.


The first part of the start was neutralised as we rode along the coast road, crowds on both sides of the street. I got myself to the front, right up behind the truck and, more importantly, right in front of the camera. After a couple of miles, or 3.218688km, when in Rome and all that, we turned and headed up the hill towards the racetrack. We had come this way down to the beach so we knew what it would be like but a 960ft climb that early on in a race is never going to be easy.

Before

Jon came passed me about two thirds of the way up. I have a singlespeed myself so I know there is a certain ‘minimum speed’ you have to do on one to keep it from getting laboured but he still seemed to be going pretty well. 

We turned onto the main course at the top of the hill, a short sharp climb followed by a very fast blast through the trees to the fireroad. 

The course was a great mixture, a bit of everything. The fireroad was followed by a couple of cliff-top paths. They were quite narrow and, although not too steep, sloped enough that one could pick up some serious speed. There was one night lap in particular where Jon was on my wheel and reported that he was doing about 30mph. This may not sound that quick to the roadies amongst you but when the bike is gradually drifting towards the right and the big drop of the cliff it feels plenty fast enough.


These paths were all followed by quite tight left turns, very easy to outbrake yourself and find yourself in the undergrowth or taking the quick way down to the beach, and these were in turn followed by short sharp climbs. One in particular had been quite tricky in practice but actually got easier as the race went on, not something which usually happens in a 24, but a line gradually began to form in the lose rocky surface and it eventually became possible to find some grip, rather than just charging at it in a display of brute power and wheelspin.

There were some more lovely swoopy sections through the trees, some of them pretty fast, before we emerged back onto the fireroad and were able to have a drink and hurriedly try to cram some food down our throats. 


The last climb was always tough, narrow and steep with plenty of switchbacks and quite a lose surface in places. Most of the time I rather enjoyed it but there were a few laps in the wee small hours when I was cursing it, and even found myself pushing a couple of times. This brought us to the top of the famous Corkscrew descent, which is every bit as much fun as it looks in the videos, and is where most of the crowds gather to cheer or heckle, the atmosphere there was great. The lap finished with a quick blast along the roadside, then through the vineyard and into the main arena and the pits before heading out to do it all again.

This was a little odd. While I had practiced all of this and knew every corner, every line, every braking point it was only about two thirds of the lap. There was a whole other section of swoopy forest trails to the other side of the arena which I was expecting to be fed on to after exiting the pits. Maybe the first lap was a little different, they sometimes are, we knew that the whopping big climb up from the town wouldn’t be repeated.

Not fashionable skinwalls, just a lot of dust

I decided to just go with the flow and keep my head down and my speed up, which worked very well until just after the silly-fast cliff-top path when I turned onto one of the climbs and my chain decided to pull itself apart, which slowed my progress somewhat. I was overtaking Stefano Ferrando at the time, a very friendly local chap. He seemed not to mind that I had nearly collected him when the bike lurched suddenly to the side as I tried to put the power down with nowhere for it go and he kindly stopped to help me put it all back together, the whole thing only cost about four minutes.

With a bit of catching up to do the rest of the lap was pretty good, the little pause had enabled me to get my breath back after the start and I felt quick again. However, on exiting the pit area the marked course again took us to the left, onto the big loop and away from the forestry section on the other side of the arena, was this right?

Everyone else seemed to be going this way, but having lost a load of time mending the chain I wasn’t sure if these were people I was catching or lapping, if I was lapping them then where had the leaders gone?



Finding out what was going on was proving to be rather tricky, my Italian just about extends to saying hello and ordering meals. I have learnt a few other phrases and can now ask for other useful things, like a new sump for a 2004 Ford Transit, but it wasn’t terribly helpful in this situation. More on that in another article.

I confused a number of people with my attempts to ask, and so checked with Carole when I got back to our pit area. She was equally confused but said that Jon was also clueless, so at least it wasn’t just me being thick. I headed out again, deciding that even if I was going the wrong way I might as well go as quickly as I could.


On my next pass through the pits Carole confirmed that the lap had been shortened and the other section was for the team race which would follow ours, so all was well and good, just carry on and try to keep the speed up and the lap times down.

There was only one slight problem with this. I am normally completely unfazed by the heat, things like sunstroke and dehydration just don’t seem to get to me. I’m rubbish in the rain though, steering on wet tree roots and powering through deep mud both flummox me. However, on this occasion the heat was starting to take its toll. It was not very hot, late twenties probably, but it was a very dry heat. This was reported to Carole and some of her ‘special’ drinks were concocted for use on the following laps. This tastes particularly unpleasant but did its job and a couple of these in amongst my usual Accelerade kept me going until the sun started to sink and the temperatures dropped. 



A quick word here about the Accelerade. I have only been using it since about March but have been really impressed with it so far. This was my first 24 with it. I have tried many different kinds of drinks over the years and there has always come a point in a 24 where my stomach has just given up and refused to take any more, but this was not a problem I encountered at all during this event. I drank 30 bottles of Accelerade, along with 2 of Carole’s special brew and a little bit of fruit juice, and was still drinking it quite happily at the end. 

The lights went onto the bikes at about 8pm. It was not dark out on the open cliff top sections until nearly 10pm but in the dense forest sections it was necessary to have the lights on a little earlier. Shortly before I left for Italy an Exposure Maxx D and a Joystick had arrived in the post, and these proved to be excellent lights, a combination Jon was also using. The Joystick battery didn’t last all night (Jon had thought of this and brought an external battery for his) but the Maxx D was so bright that this wasn’t an issue at all.



I avoided most of the strange things which my brain usually does in the wee small hours, it’s not uncommon for me to imagine all kinds of stuff when half asleep but nothing at all happened this time. I did however appear to have my ‘racing abroad’ brain in, and this was still obviously in Aussie mode. I had spent the whole of the 2013 World Champs giving anything which looked a bit like a snake a very wide berth. Most snakes have of course evolved to look a bit like a stick, but this does also mean that most sticks look a bit like a snake, and so I found myself going quite wide around most of the roots and little branches. I didn’t see a real snake the whole time I was in Italy, unless I just thought it was a stick of course. There was a small scorpion under the BBQ before the race but that was about it for interesting wildlife.

It was rather pleasant watching the sun come up above the sea, but it was shortly after this dawn lap when I had my ‘being very tired’ period. This only lasted a lap or so but I was really struggling, lap 25 was over an hour for me and I was even having to get off and push up the big nasty climb. Jon caught me at this point but psychologically it is much better having someone to ride with and so as my second wind arrived Team GB picked up the pace and continued line-astern.

 Line astern

Maybe we picked up a little too much pace. In one of the forest sections was a tight left-hander which lead into a bombhole and then a tight right-hander. I cut the first corner too tight, smashing my shoulder onto the tree on the inside of the turn. I held onto the bike down through the bombhole and out the other side but then came to a very abrupt halt. Jon found me hunched over the bike, holding my arm a bit funny and making strange noises. He stopped to check that I was still alive and then, reassured that I was, we continued. I was struggling a bit to steer with my dodgy arm and he easily pulled away from me through the trees and then disappeared off into the distance once we got to the big climb at the end of the fireroad.

Still line astern

I found him again at the top being pulled out of the undergrowth by one of the marshals and so I stopped to check that he was still alive. Reassured that he was we continued down the Corkscrew descent, passed the crowds, through the vineyard and back around for another lap.


Something a little unusual happened around 8am. It began to rain. Those of you reading this back in Blighty may not think of this as unusual, but remember that I have been in Italy for a fortnight and it is a little less common here. It was only a light shower and lasted about half an hour, but I think that still counts. I even had to put a waterproof on. Briefly.

The top of the Corkscrew


Going into the final stages of the race the two British riders were still line astern, although as he hadn’t had the rubbish period just after sunrise like I had Jon had actually managed to put a lap into me. He was leading the Singlespeed category by miles too (3.218688km for those who prefer). It was somewhat closer where I was, Carole had been to check the standings and reported that 19th down to 25th places were separated by only a couple of minutes. I was 24th at this stage, this was going to be an interesting finish. 

The bottom of the Corkscrew

The penultimate lap was pretty quick, although the tables had turned slightly by this stage and it was Jon starting to struggle behind me. He kept saying that he couldn’t keep it up, but still seemed to be sitting on my wheel with no problem at all We pulled into the pits again, gabbed my last bottle of Accelerade and, amid much bravado and some shouting, in surprisingly good Italian, we set off for our final lap.

It always amazes me just how quickly one can go with 23½hrs already in one’s legs. We were absolutely flat out along the fireroad, then hurtling along down the cliff-top path at what felt like Mach 3. We turned the corner, and I headed up the short sharp climb as fast as I could. There was a loud banging noise and some very un-Italian swear words behind me. I dropped the bike and ran back to pick Jon up. He didn’t seem badly hurt, luckily for him he had fallen onto the sharp pointy rocks rather than carrying on over the cliff.


I had no idea how I was doing it but I kept up the pace for the rest of the lap, it really felt like XC race pace. There is no point finishing the race with anything left in the tank, leave it all on the track as they say.

It was therefore a little disconcerting to discover that when I crossed the line at 24hr07mins that I was being sent out for another lap! Rather than a conventional ‘long 24’ format the race would not finish until the winner (Austrian Rudolf Springer) had crossed the line after 24hrs. Carole had a big sprint from the finish line back to the pits to refuel me for the last push, I’ve never seen her run so fast!
The problem with finishing with nothing left in the tank having left it all out on the track becomes apparent when you then have to do another 40 minutes and several hundred feet of climbing.

Jon crossed the line after Springer, so he didn't have to go out again so I was expecting to be on my own for the final lap.However, there were a couple of teams out on the track just having one last look at the course before their race and I managed to latch on to one of them, I got a very helpful slipstream along the first fireroad and then a push along another section, which was most welcome, I’m sure that little bit of assistance won’t count against me. They left me standing when we got the big climb though.

I crossed the line again after 37 laps at 24hrs52mins18secs, 183.93 miles and 28,245ft. I was up to 19th. The other member of Team GB had taken an excellent win in the singlespeed category (by about two laps!) and an even more impressive 9th overall. Another name likely to be familiar to a British audience, Pedro Maia, was 41st and my new friend Stefano was 110th.

  After

Epilogue.
As some of you know we had planned this race to be a 48hr. The solo race was from noon on Friday until noon on Saturday, with the team race from 2pm on Saturday until the same time on Sunday. On paper we had a great team; Craig, the defending European 24hr Champion, Jon, the European 12hr Singlespeed Champion and Elena, the winner at Finale last year and 10th Elite at the World Championships. Oh, and muggins here, 13th Elite at the Worlds being my best result to date, making me the weakest link. These things never quite go according to plan though. Craig was unable to make it due to other commitments. We managed to find a replacement as Spook volunteered to do a few laps for us if needed. Having someone who hadn’t done the solo first did feel a little like cheating but we could live with that. However, this was then followed by much worse news as Elena crashed her road bike at about 55mph and put herself into hospital and out of contention. So we were down to two and a stand-in, not really ideal. 

With hindsight Jon and I were in no fit state to attempt another 24 anyway, the idea of riding pairs was briefly mooted but then quickly dismissed, it would only have been about an hour from my finish to the start of the team race too. Call us wimps if you will but we decided to eat, drink and shout encouragement instead. The weather took a turn for the worse just after the start and the rain absolutely hammered down for an hour so and we were relieved not to be out there in it. It soon cleared though and we could return to pizzas, wine and heckling. The following morning standing in the blazing sunshine amongst the crowds at the bottom of the Corkscrew we did feel like we were missing out. Next year.

Jon on the podium. European 24hr Singlespeed Champion
He now holds both the 12hr and 24hr titles.


I would like to say a big thank-you to loads of people. The guys and girls at XCRacer/Scimitar obviously, Accelerade, Exposure Lights and Mt Zoom for all their support. Jon Hobson for his help during the race and his assistance with mending the van after it but most of all a very, very big thank-you to Carole Armstrong. It is a bit of a cliché to say I couldn’t have done it without her but in this case it is true.

Photographs by Carole and myself but mostly (the good ones!) by sportograf.it 

No comments:

Post a comment